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Ashley Armitage
Photography Ashley Armitage

Has Instagram become the ultimate tool for body shaming?

This photographer’s post on the social platform has received a slew of comments that spotlight where we’re going wrong with body image

For as long as Instagram has been around people have been pushing the limits of its guidelines; some are pushing for the sake of it but others are pushing for progression. Earlier this week, Seattle-based photographer Ashley Armitage (aka @ladyist) posted a photo of a friend from the waist down, wearing dark blue bikini bottoms. To some, the picture harked back to warmer months, to others, it was the ultimate sin, the unshaven pubic region of a woman’s body. At the click of a "Share ->" button, Armitage opened the floodgates and let the body shamers in.

“My intention behind posting the photo was to educate. I want to get more representations out there to show that women have a choice. Shaving or not shaving has nothing to do with our self-worth. We shouldn't get shamed if we decide to grow our hair out,” explains Armitage on her intention behind posting the image. “I honestly couldn't believe some of the comments I was getting. Both guys and girls were calling my friend a slut, a whore, dirty, unhygienic, disgusting, and gross, just for having body hair.”

Just over a month ago we published a story on Dazed titled “You can’t censor this”, a roundtable discussion on such censorship of the body on Instagram where Arvida Byström, Molly Soda, Alexandra Marzella, Rupi Kaur and Saerah Lee spoke honestly about their own experiences of posting, being shamed and being banned or removed from the platform. All have used (and still use) Instagram to challenge the body and the way the body is seen, for example Kaur, whose image of a pair of blood stained tracksuit bottoms was removed, and Marzella, who – at the time of speaking with her this past August – had seen her account suspended 16 times.

“By inserting their opinions of her ‘sexiness’ and whether or not they want to have sex with her, they’re making it about them and taking away her agency. Really though, no one was asking for male approval or disapproval here” – Ashley Armitage 

Soda mused, “As women, we grow up learning to be critical of our own bodies, as well as other women’s bodies – there is a great sense of shame embedded into all of it,” while Lee questioned, “What would happen to all these companies if all of a sudden women stopped caring about the superficial societal pressures of looking and being a certain way?” but with over 800 comments on Armitage’s post, it's clear just how polarising an image like this can be. Early commenters – presumably, those already fans of Armitage's work – were positive. "PREACH", "Amen" and "Bless" came with with prayer hands, smiley faces and love heart emojis. But as the image was rapidly 'liked' and commented on, its reach grew and so did the negativity and body shaming. Some were focused on the hygiene element of it all whereas others debated whether they’d “love to lick that”, and some felt aroused, typing, “The hair turns me on". Other lowlights were, "This is gross ew just shave lol", "Shave ur box slob", "Shave Yuh nasty", "Honestly just shave it's not that hard".

Photographer Petra Collins posted a similar image to her Instagram in 2013, one which was swiftly removed but lives on through Collins' Oyster magazine published blog "Why Instagram Censored My Body" and a constant echo that exists throughout the internet when the topic of censorship is broached. “I'm used to being told by society that I must regulate my body to fit the norm. I'm used to the fact that images of unaltered women are seen as unacceptable,” wrote Collins at the time. “I know having a social media profile removed is a 21st century privileged problem – but it is the way a lot of us live. These profiles mimic our physical selves and a lot of the time are even more important. They are ways to connect with an audience, to start discussion, and to create change,” she added.

Change is what Armitage was inviting when she published this image, as are many photographers when they post images like these. Both Collins’ and Armitage’s images are uncanny in likeness, yet – much to Armitage's surprise – three days after posting the image remains tacked proudly on her feed. A step forward for the social platform but one that feels sadly out of step with a strong amount of Instagrammers populating it.

For Armitage – as some commenters were suggesting – this wasn’t about sexuality or turning people on, a wrong, harmful and frustrating assumption that often comes with the nude or partially nude female form. “I think that this is an attempt to take the power from an empowered woman,” says Armitage. “By sexualising and degrading a woman they are trying to turn her into an object. By inserting their opinions of her ‘sexiness’ and whether or not they want to have sex with her, they're making it about them and taking away her agency. Really though, no one was asking for male approval or disapproval here.”

Neither was it about grossing people out, shaving or not shaving, telling people what to do with their bodies, or what’s right or wrong. Instead, what Armitage has done is turn a mirror on a community that’s based on sharing images – of themselves, of their friends, all open to judgement (except the lurking no-avatars who post nothing but comment EVERYWHERE.)

She’s exposed just how closed-minded people can be and scarier yet is that while men chimed in with the outdated dribble that typically comes from watching too much PornHub, a lot of the harsher comments came from women leading the body shame charge currently taking place on Armitage’s Insta feed. “I think it is rooted in the pressure of the beauty standard and the fear of the ‘unruly’ woman who strays and claims her body as her own,” explains Armitage. “An empowered woman threatens the status quo. The fact that so many people were calling a natural body ‘gross’ and ‘dirty’ confirms to me that we need more varied imagery of women and their bodies.”

While it’s not the first time a woman’s body has divided opinion and it won’t be the last, it’s a sterile reminder that as people – women even – we still have a long way to go in educating ourselves about body image.